OpinionIsrael at War

State of war should continue until tunnels are destroyed

Israel should seek consensus regarding the idea that Gaza's residents will not be able to live their lives in areas that have not been cleared of tunnels.

Israeli troops operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Dec. 28, 2023. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Dec. 28, 2023. Credit: IDF.
Meir Ben Shabbat
Meir Ben Shabbat
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy & National Security, in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021. Prior to that, for 25 years he held senior positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shabak).

Mapping out a realistic vision for post-war Gaza is a daunting task. In formulating its positions regarding the day after, Israel’s civilian leaders will need to adopt a realistic approach, adhering to the hard facts and data about the monstrous entity that has grown in our midst, taking deep root in all walks of life and segments of the population in the area it controls.

It will have to operate on the assumption that it is impossible to effect real change on a profound and cultural level in Gaza, at least for our generation. Demilitarization will have to be set as a threshold condition for any future modus vivendi in Gaza, any initiative or move that would jeopardize this will have to be opposed, and foreign peacekeeping mechanisms must not be trusted.

The upcoming visit to Israel by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken provides an opportunity to set expectations with the U.S. administration on this matter too. While the discourse on the “day after” issue has focused on the question of who will be in charge after the Hamas regime collapses, no less important is the question of what the reality on the ground will be. In public, Israel’s answer to these questions has been in a negation—emphasizing what will not be in Gaza: no to a Hamas regime, no to a Palestinian Authority in power there, no to military capabilities threatening Israel, no to restrictions on that would hamper its freedom of action. Israel’s leaders have put forth a general framework but have not fleshed out the details.

While this has led to criticism, the government has been acting properly in postponing any real deliberations on the details. This keeps attention focused on the fighting, while also not creating an impression that Israel is in a hurry and already preparing for the conclusion of the campaign (thereby weakening our forces and bolstering the enemy’s morale). A third consequence is avoiding having this issue dividing the public, and a fourth is to delay and reduce political friction on this issue with the Biden administration. Finally, the government realizes that creating the “day after” depends on the achievements of the ongoing combat, and that it is best to have that discussion from a position of strength, when one holds assets and leverage, not before.

Restoring deterrence and security demilitarization are key

However, although the IDF operation is still in full swing, it is worthwhile to delve now into one aspect of the “day after,” precisely because deliberating on this issue provides an answer to one of the tough dilemmas at this stage of the fighting: the Gaza tunnels.

On the one hand, after the price it paid on Oct. 7, Israel cannot allow the Hamas’s monstrous tunnel network to continue to exist in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, the price Israel is already paying to expose and destroy this network is high. Continuing the systematic effort to uncover and destroy the tunnels will prolong the fighting, exact further costs on our forces and also increase political pressure on Israel. What should be done, then?

Any area with tunnels should be declared a military zone for an indefinite period. First, it must be made clear that as long as tunnels exist, the state of war will continue. Israel should seek consensus (especially by having the U.S. on board) on the idea that the existence of tunnels in the Strip violates the principle of demilitarization and that the Palestinian residents will not be able to live their lives in areas with tunnels. This means that these areas will be defined as “combat zones,” and anyone found in them will be considered an enemy combatant and treated as such until the area is tunnel-free.

Opponents of this idea will likely point out that solutions must be found for the population. In a different reality, given Gaza’s conduct as a “Hamas state” and in light of the high levels of support for that organization and its brutal attack on Israel among Gazans, there would be no room for this question at all.

However, given prevailing attitudes today in the world, it can be assumed that ignoring the plea of the population would only increase opposition to Israel’s plans. Thus, Israel must enlist the United States to help provide humanitarian solutions that would be defined as lengthy but not permanent. These will be outside the area of combat.

Another argument to support such an approach is the state of destruction in most Gaza neighborhoods. Most of the population has nowhere to return to anyway. Anyone who sees Hamas’s tunnel enterprise—which relied on construction materials intended for civilian purposes—should also lower expectations for rebuilding and rehabilitation in the foreseeable future. Israel cannot afford to let such diversion of construction material happen again.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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